Vail Opening Day 2019 provides blueprint for Vail Resorts’ sustainability efforts |

Vail Opening Day 2019 provides blueprint for Vail Resorts’ sustainability efforts

Vail Mountain Opening Day 2019 reflects a paradigm shift in decision making for area’s largest employer

Fan guns are on display at Mid-Vail as a fixed gun on the Swingsville run blows snow behind them. A pipeline 20-inches in diameter now pumps water to about 80 fixed guns along Swingsvile and Ramshorn, which will now serve as the first two runs to open at Vail each season.
Whitney Brofos | Special to the Daily

VAIL – These days, on Vail Mountain, all decisions are made with environmental impact in mind.

Those are the words of COO Beth Howard, who is overseeing Opening Day 2019, a new-and-improved Opening Day the likes of which Vail has never seen.

The improvement hinges around a decision to move the Opening Day base area from Lionshead to Mid-Vail, and while it appears to be an obvious choice, it also reflects the latest thinking in the company’s mountain management strategy: Climate change is real, and ski resorts will need to adjust to it.

As a result, the new snowmaking system that allowed for a shift to higher-elevation terrain in the early season is nothing if it isn’t employing top-of-the-line efficiencies.

At Mid-Vail, a new pipe underground connects directly to approximately 80 new guns along the Swingsville and Ramshorn runs. The pipe is 20 inches in diameter, wide enough to allow all 80 guns to operate at full capacity during those crucial moments when conditions are ideal for most efficient snowmaking. Using onboard weather stations, the new snowmaking guns automatically pump more water through the gun as temperatures go down and less water as temperatures go up.

Mountain officials said the water cycle of all the new snow was contemplated carefully, and there are environmental benefits associated with the water storage aspect of snowmaking. With channeling on the mountain allowing for 75 percent of the water use to be non-consumptive at Vail, snowpack on the runs will translate into a source of water storage which will make an important contribution to the spring runoff cycle later on in the year. 

“That’s one of the best aspects of snowmaking … we’re putting it on the hill and storing it,” Howard said. “You have a little bit of evaporation, you have some going back into the soils, and you have the majority of it going back into the watershed.”

Commitment to Zero

Howard said that and every other aspect of Vail management is now focused on attaining the company’s goal of achieving a zero net operating footprint by 2030. Vail Resorts calls the plan their “Commitment to Zero,” and defines it a zero net carbon emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfills and zero operating impact on forests and natural habitat.

“Our Commitment to Zero, we went out with that two years ago, and have really, really focused on that every day, in everything we do with capital investment, operating, how we operate the mountain, recycling, everything,” Howard said.

In addition to the remote sensing and snowmelt control upgrades on the mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek both executed $800,000 worth of energy-efficiency improvements in 2019 following a professional energy audit, according to the company’s second annual EpicPromise progress report, released in October.

In 2019 Vail and Beaver Creek mountains converted lighting to LED, replaced inefficient boilers, updated older and inefficient refrigeration equipment and installed controls on water pumping equipment.

“We’re committed to it and we understand the importance of it,” Howard said. “The natural environment is our product, and we take that seriously.”

Within the statement is an acknowledgement of the fact that Vail Resorts’ profits as a publicly traded company rely upon the natural environment and the public land on which the resort operates, and in saying it, Howard echoes a statement from CEO Rob Katz in undertaking the Commitment to Zero in 2017.

“The environment is our business,” Katz said, in a statement posted on the Commitment to Zero web page. “And we have a special obligation to protect it. As a growing global company so deeply connected to the outdoors, we are making a commitment to address our most pressing global environmental challenge and protect our local communities and natural resources.”

In the EpicPromise progress report, Katz said that by setting bold goals, Vail Resorts has been “driven to think bigger and work more collaboratively with our employees and communities to find creative solutions that will allow us to have a measurable impact on climate change.”

But it won’t be an easy task, Katz said.

In the company’s Commitment to Zero video, Katz ends the piece with a truth the company has long known about such an ambitious goal.

“It’s going to require the innovation, passion and dedication of all of us to get to zero,” Katz says, before leaving us with a familiar brand slogan: “This is what epic looks like.”

Safer, as well

And if environmental sustainability is Vail’s No. 1 concern, it takes the top position in a tie with on-mountain safety.

“There’s nothing as important to us as safety,” Howard said. “That’s one of our core values as a company.”

In moving Opening Day to Mid-Vail, where more runs await first-day skiers, Howard says the resort will provide a safer experience, as well. 

“Instead of having every skill level on Born Free top to bottom, we now have beginner and intermediate,” Howard said, in reference to the Swingsville and Ramshorn runs, which are set to open on Opening Day every season moving forward.

Also, Howard added, “We’re going to activate Golden Peak Day One for our never-evers, so they are not interfacing with more advanced skiers, they can come down the 12-to-One Connector and ski Swingsville, so there’s a progression for early season for all skill levels.”

“Any time you can spread guests out and not interface a beginner with an advanced skier on one or two runs, that’s a real win,” Howard added.

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